Thomas Edison: Inventor Or Thief?


Thomas Alva Edison is credited as being the fourth most prolific inventor in history, with 1093 inventions patented under his name in the United States, and more in the United Kingdom, Germany and France. He’s most famous for inventing the light bulb. But how many inventions can Edison really claim? It seems that in many cases, all Edison did was put the cherry on top of other people’s work.

Incandescent Light

Contrary to popular belief, Edison neither invented the light bulb nor even held the first patent for it. The patent he first applied for, in 1878, was actually for “Improvement in Electric Lights”. Light bulbs had already been around for 50 years before Edison patented his version in 1879. Also, Edison actually lost his patent rights to the light bulb in both the United States and Britain. All that Edison can be credited for is making the light bulb commercially viable by modifying the work of others.

The Moving Picture

The invention of the first moving picture should be credited to Edward Muybridge. Muybridge set out to prove that when a horse ran, it lifted all four of its legs off the ground. He succeeded in doing this by taking a series of photographs in quick succession. This laid the foundations for frame-by-frame cinematography.  Actual motion pictures as we know them today were never foreseen by Edison, although he has largely taken credit for the kinetoscope – which was actually an invention of one of his employees, William Dickson.

Edison versus Tesla

Nikola Tesla, a Serbian employee of Edison’s, is thought to have been behind a lot of inventions that made Edison famous. One of these is the electric generator. In the late 1880s, Tesla and Edison were engaged in what we know as the “War of the Currents”.  Tesla, with another electrical engineer – George Westinghouse – promoted the use of alternating current, or AC, whereas Edison was for direct current, or DC.

While still employed by Edison, Tesla was offered $50,000 if he could make good on his claim that he could redesign Edison’s generators and motors, improving both their service and economy. Edison is quoted as saying: “There’s $50,000 in it for you – if you can do it”. Tesla could and did, but then Edison claimed he was only joking, saying that Tesla didn’t understand American humor.

Edison and Executions

Tesla’s idea of AC began to take off, and it became apparent that it was more efficient than Edison’s DC system, which required that a power station be within a mile of the consumer. Perhaps due to hurt pride, Edison then embarked on a smear campaign against the use of AC power.

Among his public displays were a horrifying electrocution of a circus elephant, Topsy, on Coney Island. After feeding her cyanide-laced carrots and pumping her with 6000 volts of AC power, she died “without a trumpet or a groan”. Edison hoped this would demonstrate the lethal force of AC, thereby making people less likely to support its use.

Edison is often credited with inventing the electric chair. In fact, the chair – like the kinetoscope – was an invention of one of his employees, Harold P. Brown. Although Edison claimed to oppose corporal punishment, he apparently allowed development of the electric chair specifically because he thought it would demonstrate how deadly AC can be.

The Legacy

Edison is famously quoted as saying, “Keep on the lookout for novel ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea has to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you’re working on”. However, although he may have taken credit for other people’s ideas, his achievements shouldn’t be underplayed. Among other devices, he took the light bulb, telegraph, and kinetoscope and made them commercially viable, making it possible to bring electricity to the masses. Inventor or thief, or perhaps a bit of both, he was above all a shrewd businessman.

Jeff writes for HVDH, an industrial engineering company which designs custom machines and tools for manufacturers.

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